all humans possess a nose, it seems that smell is experienced in
a variety of intensities by different people. Smell is unlike any
other sense, like sight for example, where everyone will see the
same thing regardless of whether they are wearing glasses or not.
There are smells and there are smells. I am not talking about perfume
and modern day fragrances, I am talking about the raw stuff, the
smells of nature.
I have found that my sense of smell is quite acute. Now, this can
be a curse sometimes, especially when travelling to countries with
little consideration of hygiene. In this case, however, my nose,
or what it was smelling, was dragging me to some exquisite, at first
unidentifiable source. Unidentifiable was the name of the flower
that produced the smell, for I was certain that it was a flower.
The source was malik, or Arabic jasmine and it is made into a garland
with colourful bows at both ends. This is phuang malai, the Thai
garland, an equivalent to the Japanese art of flower arrangement.
Apparently this type of flower arrangement became more popular
during the reign of King Rama V. It was then that ladies of the
court practiced their design skills in creating a feast of garlands;
skills which were passed on to other ladies in-waiting, or to students
completing their education within the palace walls.
A garland can take on different shapes. It can either be circular
to resemble a necklace or bracelet ending with two or more'tails'
of flower ribbons, or long with two strands of flowers separated
by a ribbon. The most common type of phuang malai is held together
by a string of tiny white malik blossoms. Yet another type of jasmine,
this one without smell, is strung onto the garland. There is something
particular about this flower called dok ruk, the flower of love.
It neither looks like a flower nor feels like one. It resembles
the top stone of an ancient Greek Corinthian pillar and if I did
not know it was real I would say that it was made of plastic. The
resilient dok ruk is what keeps the garland from withering away
all too soon, helping it last for a maximum of five days. Yellow
marigold or red roses add the final touches and the garland is ready.
Flower garlands were traditionally hung in front of windows, thus
allowing the aromatic jasmine to waft into the house. Hung in front
of Buddha statues, or pictures of monks, they act as offerings to
celestial beings. Placed in front of photographs of relatives, they
are offerings to the dearly departed. On spirit houses, phuang malai
are used to please the spirits with their smell. In the car, they
are believed to have the power to prevent accidents and if offered
to guests, they substitute for words like'Welcome'.
The higher the status of the person, the more elaborate the garland.
A garland offered to the King, for example, is as intricate as any
floor mosaic. Orchids, a reddish-purple flower called ban mai roo
roi, roses or any other flower may be used to weave an elaborate
pattern combined with the fragrant malik. Patterns of flowers are
made out of a combination of smaller blossoms. Banana leaves, cut
in small pieces, may be used to break up the colours, by inserting
a tinge of much needed green in this ocean of colour. An elaborate
garland such as this may resemble knots on a rope with little rings
of white blossoms, thus creating a stunning effect of thickness
Although different flowers may be used to make a garland, the malik
seems to be the most commonly used. The fact that it symbolizes
purity explains it all. Of equal importance is the fragrance it
emanates, which is sure to reach even the dullest of noses. Other
flowers are associated with certain qualities and are used to accomplish
different means. The orchid, for example, stands for endurance,
after all it keeps very well for a long time, the yellow marigold
has increasing qualities, while the ban mai roo roi represents a
Phuang malai can be bought in front of temples, in the market,
at flower stalls or in the street. Prices vary and elaborate ones
generally have to be ordered in advance. It takes 13 minutes for
an experienced florist to make a 15 cm garland. Most of all, patience
is needed to string together flower after flower.
The materials for making phuang malai have changed over the years.
Cotton thread may be used in place of the traditional banana leaf
thread used in the past. Fluorescent plastic bows may be tied at
the ends of tails, replacing those traditionally made by banana
leaves. Phuang malai however, retains its place in Thai culture
as strongly as ever, for their sacred mission of honouring seen
and unseen beings alike is as relevant today as it was centuries